Flaws in Referendums

Until very recently, Turkey was a proudly democratic Middle Eastern country, with a large Muslim population, who flaunted free elections, freedom of speech and secularism; especially, in relation to other, or most, Muslim-majority countries. This may have been a result of their proximity to Europe, and the continent’s positive democratic inclinations. In fact, Turkey, in the 2000’s, was a leading candidate to become part of the European Union (EU).

The EU told them that there were various improvements they had to make to become a member. People would have thought Turkey would be moving in that direction by now. On the other hand, Turkey, more than at any time in this century, is least eligible for an EU membership. And it is all thanks to one man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Uncharacteristically for a President, least of all a Turkish one, Erdoğan had been very uncool. In the past couple of months, he could be heard at rallies calling European leaders Nazis, or of using Nazi tactics. Calling someone a Nazi is in bad taste – it diminishes Holocaust atrocities. But calling German and Dutch leaders Nazis, evoking a piece of history that is so unconscionable to reprimand them, is just unforgivable.

But Erdoğan was inconsiderate for nothing. He was playing dirty politics. This was taking place in the days and weeks leading to a vote on a constitutional referendum. If the referendum had passed – and it did, last week – Erdoğan was going to get to be a leader like no other Turkish president had ever been. He would be given sweeping new powers. All the powers and responsibilities of the Prime Minister would go to him – altogether the office itself would be removed from the constitution (paradoxically, the Prime Minister campaigned in favour of the referendum). More importantly, Erdoğan would also get to nominate members of the parliament and the Supreme Court.

Under most circumstances, when a president such as Erdoğan asks for these kinds of powers, people would be alarmed. Erdoğan, in the name of the failed military coup last year, has imprisoned an estimated 50,000 people and sacked over 100,000. These figures alone should make any Turk pause, but they did not, and Erdoğan somehow got the powers he wanted.

The why is very important and should serve as a lesson to anyone who wants to hold a referendum. Referendums are a lot like elections but a lot less democratic. They usually take place after momentous junctures in a nation’s history, and as they are far harder to overturn, they have the power to excite emotions and lead a country down a path which it may later regret.

As Erdoğan was in a war of words with the Europeans and being condemned for it by most of the international community, there were reports that at the same time, his comments were going very well for his domestic audience. Turkey has a lot of problems – Kurdish insurrections, economic downturns – so Erdoğan, to win support for his referendum, had to rule against the outside world, boost national pride by showing he could call foreign leaders Nazis and get away with it. All of this to distract from the nation’s domestic problems. This, coupled with the numerous terrorist attacks, and the fact that there is the State of Emergency in the country (severely curtailing the extent to which the opposition could criticise him), meant Erdoğan could win.

Turkey is the latest example of the misuse of referendums, but not the most notorious. That prize would naturally go to United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, in which all kinds of lies were heaved at each other by both opposing camps in the bid to decide if the UK would get to remain in the EU or not. All the while, the government refused to acknowledge the fact that such a referendum is too radical, or did not even ask the right question.

In the same year, Colombia had a referendum of its own. The country had been through a scarring half-a-century-year-old civil war with the leftist guerrilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At last though, the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos was able to negotiate a peace deal that would see the FARC rebels disarm. To gauge public opinion, he decided to hold a referendum on whether or not the peace accord should pass. While towns ravaged by the civil war approved, towns that were not, rejected the deal, and Santos lost the referendum.

Referendums of this kind are wrong but not for the reasons some pundits give – that laymen are too unqualified to make decisions so multifaceted. If a vote deciding any policy or amendment seems too complex for a voter to comprehend its historical or political gravitas, it falls to the campaigners to make it as plain as possible to the voters – in the same way, a prosecutor or a defence attorney is expected to do so to a jury.

But referendums should not be held under the circumstances, or during times of, political and social sensitivity. When people are scared and uncertain, they have a tendency to pick something that seems safe and secure, but not necessarily right. Most Colombians living in safer towns thought the FARC rebels were getting away with too much and voted to prolong the war; the British wanted to stop immigration, as opposed to gaining sovereignty, what the Brexit referendum was supposed to be about; and the Turks gave power to Erdoğan much the same way the Romans made Julius Caesar a dictator hoping he would get rid of the enemy.



By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com

Published on Apr 22,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 885]



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